Saturday, May 29, 2010

Politics Explained

“They're all bums.”

Such was my first lesson on politics, delivered to me on many occasions by one of my grandfathers. I'll leave it to you to decide which one.

My grandfather Reilly was a Philadelphia police officer and a loyal, lifelong Republican who was very happy to share his over-the-top, politically incorrect names for President Franklin Roosevelt with anyone unfortunate enough to bring up the subject.

Grandpop Huber made his living on the outskirts of legality, tending bar and (depending on who you can believe) possibly running numbers and “finding” merchandise recently lost from the backs of trucks. He was also a Democratic Party committeeman.

Now, no one ever claimed that they were best friends, but they got along just fine. There were no turkey versus ham Thanksgiving dinner shutdowns, no Schmidts versus Ballantine beer embargoes at Fourth of July picnics and no competitive filibustering at wedding toasts (although Mr. Reilly could tell an extended tale or two).

But the days of respectful political disagreement have gone the way of the straw hat and petticoat.

Today it seems that every opinion contrary to our own is a personal affront. To disagree with us is to be an agent of evil, just plain stupid, dangerously naive or all three. And should one of those disagreeing types try to explain his or her thinking to us, we pretend to listen but are mentally putting our fingers in our ears and screaming “La-la-la-la-la....”

And I think I know what the problem is. People are treating their politics as if it were their religion.

The idea behind religion, as I understand it, is that you are right, everybody else is wrong and they should all just shut up about it. This is known as faith. Faith needs to be unwavering to be worth anything at all, so compromise of faith is a sure ticket to hell.

But politics is supposed to be different from that. In a democracy, compromise is the goal. (I would point out here that you can't spell compromise without “promise,” but I promised myself I wouldn't do that.) To steadfastly maintain one's opinion, unwilling to move from it no matter how persuasive the argument against, is a sure way to bring government to a screeching halt.

You might point out that in America's early days it was not uncommon for political rivals to shoot each other in duels. This is true, but if you look closely at that particular practice it was seldom over a political difference. Politicians shot and got shot over issues like being called a scoundrel in public, whose horse bit the postman or an ungentlemanly whisper about a flirtatious wife. Very rarely over issues like the Louisiana Purchase or the rum tax.

Come to think of it though, it was when duels were outlawed that government started getting less and less efficient. But that's probably just a coincidence, right?

Today, if you look at almost any congressional vote on almost any issue on almost any day, you may be as surprised as I am to find that every single Democrat thinks exactly the same way, and that every single Republican thinks exactly the opposite way.

What are the odds of that? Shouldn't there be the odd Democrat who is sure that the government should not be in the healthcare business? Or the strange Republican who believes that the stimulus saved the American economy?

Could it be that it's easier to label ourselves liberals or conservatives than to actually think about issues on an individual basis as they arise? Isn't it possible to be for stricter immigration laws and for the bank bailout? Or to be for banning both handguns and abortions?

(That's six questions in a row … my personal record.)

Maybe if people start developing their own informed opinions, instead of just walking in lockstep with those left- or right-leaning leaders with whom they've aligned themselves, their representatives will follow along.

Then again, politicians have given us very little reason to believe they will ever change their ways, haven't they?

Now I have to come clean about how I started this whole discussion. It was sort of trick question. Both of my grandfathers had come to the conclusion that all politicians were bums at one time or another.

And so we do have conclusive proof that agreement between diverse positions is possible!

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